By RYAN TOLMICH
The Montreal Impact enter the 2014 season with a bad taste in their mouths. The second year franchise began their 2013 campaign in a hurry by losing just one of their first eight matches.
The wheels fell off from there though, and the Impact limped into the playoffs after winning just one of their last eight. The Canadian side’s fate didn’t prove to be much better in postseason play, as the Impact lost 3-0 to the Houston Dynamo after going down to eight men.
It was a tale of two teams for the Impact. The early-season Impact were clinical, defensively tough and mentally strong. The late-season Impact were a broken bunch that saw all of their hard work washed a way by a terrible streak of losses.
The Impact will be hoping the 2014 season will be a lot less Jeckyll and Hyde. The team made few changes to the roster, but brought in a new head coach in Frank Klopas, who arrives from the Chicago Fire. Klopas has the task of leading the Impact back to the playoffs, and improving on last season’s ugly finish.
Here is a closer look at the Montreal Impact ahead of the 2014 MLS season:
MONTREAL IMPACT SEASON PREVIEW
2013 FINISH: 14-13-7 (fifth in the Eastern Conference)
KEY ACQUISITIONS: D Eric Miller, F Santiago Gonzalez
KEY LOSSES: D Alessandro Nesta, M Davy Arnaud, D Zarek Valentin, F Daniele Paponi, M Andrea Pisanu
NEWCOMER TO WATCH:Eric Miller. The Impact made a move to trade up for Creighton’s Miller, who was widely believed to be the best fullback available in this year’s draft. Miller has the versatility to feature all over the backline for his new team with his 6’1 frame, as he could see playing time at fullback, centerback or even midfield this season. Look for the 21-year-old to find time on a defense that lost its leader Nesta.
THE PRESSURE IS ON: Frank Klopas. After the terrible ending to last season, the Impact chose to move in a new direction without their manager, Schällibaum. However, many felt the Impact took a step sideways rather than forward with the hiring of Klopas, whose Fire finished behind his new side last season. Klopas will have to justify the move by at least guiding the Impact to a playoff appearance.
The Impact will once again rely on Marco Di Vaio’s prolific scoring on the attacking side. Di Vaio is one of the league’s elite talents, finishing 2013 as the league’s third leading goalscorer with 20. The Impact leaned heavily on their Italian finisher, as Di Vaio scored 45 percent of the team’s goals and as many as the team’s second through sixth placed goal-scorers combined. The 37-year-old is no young man anymore and there are certainly questions as to how long he can continue to play at an elite level.
However, the Impact have already begun to prepare for life without a Di Vaio that scores at will, as the signing of Gonzalez from Uruguayan side Sud America could be a vital one. At worst, Gonzalez is a player for the future, as the 21-year-old had five goals and two assists in 14 games last season in Uruguay. However, at best, Gonzalez can hassle defenses enough to provide Di Vaio with that extra bit of space necessary to find the back of the net.
Most of Montreal’s core remains intact, with Justin Mapp, Patrice Bernier and Felipe all back in midfield. The loss of Arnaud to D.C. United could prove to be a big one, but the Impact look to have the midfield quality that it takes to replicate last year’s results.
The team’s key question marks heading into 2014 lie in the defense. Despite being a shell of his former self, Alessandro Nesta brought a level of experience matched by few in MLS. However, the Imapact still have a solid core of Matteo Ferrari, Hassoun Camara and Jeb Brovsky that should be able to hold together the backline.
Overall, the Impact have a high ceiling, as they return a group that is sure to be chomping at the bit to distance themselves from last year’s breakdown. The team has all the potential to compete for a playoff spot, much like last season. It will be up to Klopas to make sure the team stays disciplined, hungry and consistent not just through the first few months, but for the entirety of the 2014 campaign.